Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Herd Mentality

I know why I want to be Hillary's friend. She is interesting, she is gentle, she is beautiful, she is full of being and of happening and full of praise for being and for happening, she is full of knowledge, insights, and subjective experiences I can't even imagine, she is selfless, she is strong, she is subtle, she is brimming with social, emotional and ethical intelligence.

I can also guess why Hillary has no interest in being my friend. She grew up on an industrial-scale farm that exploited thousands of sheep for wool, meat and dairy, a place where human contact, though sporadic, was always traumatic, always filled with terror, pain, insult, humiliation, and loss – something to fear and to flee, something that sent waves of horror throughout the entire herd. From a very young age, she absorbed the collective fright that flooded her community every time they were chased, cornered, shoved into chutes, corralled, grabbed one by one, bound, and subjected to painful, invasive, and terrifying procedures.

So, part of her reservation is probably the memory of abuse. But most of her distance seems to come from something else, something closer to certainty and strength than fear and helplessness. Unlike Bijou and Seymour, who were raised in isolation as "experimental research subjects" and were in close, daily contact with humans, Hillary was raised by sheep and learned early on the identity, the wisdom, the language, the myths, the terrors, the rewards, the duties, the errors, the ethics, and the pleasures of her society and her species. She knows who she is. And if, after years of living in the peace and safety of the sanctuary, she still avoids us – gently, sweetly, almost politely, as though declining a well-meaning but decidedly odd, ill-fitting offer – it's not so much because we frighten her, but simply because we have nothing interesting or useful to offer her or her friends.

We have no insights that she or her friends would find useful or interesting, no good answers to her most important questions, no tips for where the good grasses grow, no appreciation of the flavors that are most exquisite to a sheep's palate, no discernment of the scents that are most pleasing to a sheep's nose, or most redolent to her brain, her memory, her heart, no ability to either hear or understand the sounds she finds meaningful, soothing, exciting, evocative, no organ to detect the subtle signals she receives from her environment – the rustle of insect wings, the breeze on the face of the pond, the pulse of the earth under feet, the shifts in consciousness we are unaware of but that she rides like waves, waves that move the entire flock from place to place like silent currents – we have no grasp on what she finds beautiful, meaningful, sacred.

We have no connection with, and no access to the poetic, happening, boundless world she inhabits, the mystic world where beauty is not a thing, but a feeling, a state of mind, a felt presence, a state of pure harmony, a world that is not fractured into 171,476 separate words but exists as one continuous breath that informs the whole being, the heart, the brain, the senses, a poetic world that begins and exists only past the edge of language. We have no access to this fluid universe that Hillary inhabits effortlessly, this living ocean teeming with rich and strange understandings. We look at the world (theirs and ours) from the outside, from a surface we keep willfully cold, and hard, and shallow – a steel cover of words and rationalizations cast over an ocean teeming with life, and heart, and hurt, and redemption.

And we tend to misinterpret even what little of her world we do manage to see. We come face to face with the exquisite democracy that a sheep community is – a community whose every member accepts, expects and is trusted to be of service to the others, an equal participant in leadership, in compliance and in solving the problems and tasks at hand, like protection, like finding grazing grounds, or safe camping grounds – and we deride it as stupidity.

We watch beings like Hillary lead and follow with equal ease – sometimes taking charge – when she has the answer that her family needs at that moment (where the good grasses grow, or where the deepest shade stretches, where the safest, most peaceful or most enrapturing spot in the entire sanctuary happens to be unfolding) – other times following – when any other group member indicates that they know where to find what the herd needs or craves at that time – and we call it mindless submission.

We see someone like Hillary stay effortlessly and fluidly connected with every member of her community, we see her community respond to her and one another with equal alertness – staying visually and psychologically connected at all times, communicating the good, the bad, the perilous news of every living moment in ways that, though too subtle for us to understand, are unmistakably clear to them, remaining alert to every sign of danger or delight, being aware of every inner and outer happening, every feeling, every sound, every subtle shift in facial expressions, mood, movement, or tone, and always prompt and precise in communicating it – we see their deeply intuitive way of being in the world and we call it dumbness.

We watch how she, a completely vulnerable, completely defenseless being, reacts to danger – not by running away, not by hiding, but by huddling with her family, by adding her mass, her body, her will, her life to the group, poised to face the assault together, ready to take what beatings may come, standing united for better or for worse, each individual offering his or her bulk, his or her body, his or her life to the group, thus making the group stronger, more resilient, more impervious to attack, more invulnerable, safer – we watch these everyday acts of supreme solidarity, selfless service and courage, and we discount them as "instinct". We watch someone like Hillary act out of an imperative to serve, and we call it self-interest.

We come face to face with someone as accomplished as her and turn her very identity into an insult – a "sheep".

It's easy to see why Hillary avoids us. What is harder to see is that we are secretly relieved that she does. To know Hillary, to truly know her, to know her as a person not a pet, an equal not a slave, is to be forced to see what we strenuously avoid seeing – our own gaping shortcomings.

In Hillary's presence, it becomes blatantly obvious how much less gifted we are than she is at all of the important things in life – love, peace, equality, service, responsibility, selflessness, connection, loyalty, trust, insight, bliss, gratitude for simply being and for happening.

Next to a being who is so acutely aware of self and others, we appear confused, utterly confused with our profoundly thwarted humanity, our deeply distorted sense of personal and species identity, so profoundly confused that we believe ourselves to be hunters when we are the quintessential prey, imagining ourselves to be carnivores when we have the physiology, anatomy and psychology of herbivores, believing ourselves to be the wise "stewards" of a world we've raped and pillaged to ashes, fancying ourselves to be more intelligent than all of the other miraculous species on earth, when we don't even know what species we are – apes? wolves? sharks? vultures?...

Next to a being who lives on flowers, we can smell the lingering scent of our own heinous crimes long after we become vegan – our own carrion breath, our own rotten egg belches, our own cheese-scented sweat, our own blood encrusted fingers.

Next to a being who is so profoundly peaceful and democratic, so harmoniously connected with her world, so flawlessly integrated in her environment – habitat on her back – we appear terminally unaware, selfish, violent and brutal, like the monsters of our own worst nightmares, with our naked bodies wrapped in dead skins or sheets of tangled sheep hair, sprouting tentacle-like legs and arms, the better to hold and strangle the world and everything in it, forever standing on our hind legs, in constant attack posture, in a never-ending assault on the Earth always taking, cutting, killing, controlling, always "improving" life that is already luminously, profoundly perfect in its every quivering detail.

Next to a being whose instinct to serve her community is more powerful than her instinct to save her own life, next to someone who would bear excruciating pain in silence rather than expose the community to danger, someone who would stand with the group and face danger and death together rather than scatter and run for her life when attacked, we appear hopelessly selfish and cowardly, pathetically incomplete and unfinished.

Hillary is what we, the Consumers of the world, admire, envy, want to be, and may never become: full and useful Citizens of the world.

Joanna Lucas
© 2007 Joanna Lucas
If living ethically is important to you, please remember that there is nothing humane about “humane” animal farming, just as there is nothing ethical or defensible about consuming its products. When confronted with the fundamental injustice inherent in all animal agriculture—a system that is predicated on inflicting massive, intentional and unnecessary suffering and death on billions of sentient individuals—the only ethical response is to strive to end it, by becoming vegan, not to regulate it by supporting “improved” methods of producing dairy, eggs, meat, wool, leather, silk, honey, and other animal products. For more information, please read The Humane Farming Myth. Live vegan and educate others to do the same.